A Question Of Qualities: Essays In Architecture

by | 16. Jan 2014


Kipnis-A-Question-of-Qualities.jpgImage courtesy MIT Press

By Martin Søberg

Jeffrey Kipnis’ collection of mind-blowing theoretical essays in architecture addresses the question of qualities. Yet stimulated by sensorial effects and epistemic potentials of contemporary architecture, it also points to the discursive capacities of critical writing as such. The book is a remarkable insight into the mind of one of today’s most piercing and playful architectural thinkers.

Even though the book’s 11 essays were written within a period of almost thirty years, between 1990 and 2008, Kipnis’ theoretical affiliation with the conceptual thinking of deconstruction never loses its grip. Throughout the volume, he consistently demonstrates the power of destabilizing questioning, cross-referencing, and reassembling prevailing ideas. He combines this with a painstaking insistency on the bodily experience of our built reality as a necessary starting point for any kind of architectural criticism.

This implies that a particular work of architecture may not be attributed to one single interpretation in accordance with accepted points of view or with the intentions of its maker, but that each work may spark a plethora of diverse interpretations. As Kipnis proclaimed as early as 1990 as a guidance for all his subsequent critical work:  

1. The meaning of any work is undecidable.
2. Inasmuch as a work aspires to meaning, it represses undecidability.
3. It is both possible and desirable to work in such a way as to respect undecidability.
/ Kipnis, p. 225

Kipnis-A-Question-of-Qualities-Nelson-Atkins.jpgSteven Holl Architects: Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What Architecture Affects

Even if questioning stands out as the most valued of Jeffrey Kipnis’ procedures throughout his writings, A Question of Qualities also demonstrates slight alterations in attitude. While the early essays focus on writing, discourse and differentiation, a phenomenological interest appears more distinctly in the later essays with (critical) references to philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

If the body and its experiences are important, not least for evaluating the performative and affective qualities of architecture, conceptual thinking must however not be ignored. Exactly this horizon spanning between concept and effect is what motivates one of his most insightful essays on the work of Thom Mayne and Morphosis Architects.

It also features significantly in his sensitive writings on Steven Holl’s addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Through precise description, Kipnis evokes the phenomenal effect of this translucent building and its ability to not only frame the works of art, but also to serve as a kind of guiding optical instrument for the visitor’s experience.

Kipnis-A-Question-of-Qualities-GlassHouse.jpgPhilip Johnson, Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, USA. Photo: Martin Søberg

Detouring Discourse

As his essays deliver sometimes surprising, sometimes provoking, but never boring interpretations of work by some of the most significant contemporary architects – OMA, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Herzog & de Meuron, Bernard Tschumi, and others – Kipnis draws from a vast pool of knowledge: Architectural projects are contextualized by references to poetry, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and physics.

A text on Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, provides an insightful meta-reflection on architectural criticism. Jeffrey Kipnis points to the contingency of architectural theorization and interpretation in his account of shifting critical perspectives on Johnson’s scheme. Indeed, to Kipnis writing is a creative act that challenges the built structures in question and even inspires new work:

The place of conceptual discourse in the arts is to husband new cultivars of material practices that in turn can grow into new species, even new genera, empowering a proliferating catalog of talent, genius, and intuition, each of which enlarges the existential territory available to each and all of us.
/ Kipnis, p. 8

Writing is a medium of exchange”, states Kipnis. A Question of Qualities does not raise such a question itself; the essays that make up this sophisticated volume have long proved their intellectual and inspirational value, making this collection a remarkable insight into the conceptual endeavor of one of today’s most piercing and playful architectural thinkers.